Interview of Parisian artist/author Stéphane Zagdanski

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The following interview was conducted in Paris at the studio/atelier of novelist/artist Stéphane Zagdanski by Rebecca Morrison.  Stéphane began the RARE project in March 2014. He thought about the project for 2 years before implementing it.  RARE is a 100-page novel written partially in English and partially in French. Each page has been transformed into a piece of art.  Each piece is  different/unique/rare. The project was completed in July 2016 and the art show will be at the Galerie Eric Dupont in Paris http://www.eric-dupont.com/  from September 3-24, 2016.  The vernissage/opening will be on September 3 beginning at 3 p.m.   This will probably be the only time that you will be able to see all of the 100 pieces of art together before they are sold and/or distributed to international shows. Each sold piece will be accompanied by a copy of the novel of which there will only be 200 copies.

The first part of the novel was written in English to reach a non-French audience that is unfamiliar with his previous novels. On page 72, the text switches to French. RARE is an autobiographical novel which begins in 2011 and ends when the project began (2014). It is self-reflexive, talking about writing the  novel in the novel, sort of a Portrait of the Artist. There is a dialogue in the works of art between the old and the new. The entire novel was first hand written on a notebook in fountain pen and ink which is how the author was taught to write in France at age 6. There are pieces of art that consist of videos on computer tablets attached directly to the center of the canvas. The most “difficult” piece was the one which was written directly onto a printer. Part of the novel was written on women’s bodies and on the body and clothes of a male mannequin. The hero/author of the story is named Ace Zed (the first sentence “Call me Ace” is a reference to Moby Dick – Call me Ishmael).

The materials used for each piece are different–chalk, pastels, bic pens, fountain pens, Italian alphabet soup, videos, special papers and ink from Japan, and 20 meters of the side of a building. Often the pens, pieces of chalk and inkpots are attached/glued directly to the pieces of art. On page 1, the very special Japanese ink vial still full was glued to the page to demonstrate that it is not the tool/medium used which is “valuable” and “important” but the words that are written with the ink. This is also another self-reflective act with the tools (pen and ink) becoming part of the art by being glued to the art. The author once accidentally glued himself to the art but in that instance the art temporarily became a part of him. Each letter of every page/piece of art is handwritten. Edits and changes are made directly on the pieces of art often in a contrasting color. Sometimes, if the author disliked  an entire painting he had created, he created an entirely new painting/page. Some pieces of art have broken and they have been abandoned to the “broken art shelf.” The author writes for himself, not to please his audience or his critics; and of course the critics critized him for not pleasing them. His studio in Paris used to be a butcher shop which he now shares with a lovely psychotherapist who is the proud owner of a RARE prototype white block paperweight with words. The project was independently funded by the artist who stands in good stead with a long line of poor Parisian artists and writers. He has taught himself various painting and art techniques using books and the Internet.  Be sure to look at all the photos at the very bottom of the interview.

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Z: So this is page 1. So the paper is black, it’s handmade in Korea. I buy [stet] it in Paris but it comes from Korea, and it’s from a tree–Mûrier (Mulberry tree). And the ink comes from Japan, it’s golden inkstick, and the brush, it’s a regular Chinese brush, so this one for instance I bought it on the Internet and then I use [stet] it only for one page.

E: Yes.

Z: You see you can use it for years, usually, with the whole stick you have a lot of ink. But me, I just used it for one page and then I put it on the inside of the frame and nobody can write with it anymore. And that’s what I call the sacrifice, of the tool, of the writing tool. That’s page 1.

E: So that’s kind of a metaphor?

Z: Yeah, of the fact that the tool is not as important as the writing itself.

E: Mmm. Mmm.

Z: You don’t have to worship the tool. So for instance, if I give you another example and you will understand, it’s also true for the videos.

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Z: So I bought a Galaxy tab. I could have bought an iPad or something like that, but I did it with the Galaxy tab for one reason, is that there is a program, an application, that make[s] it possible to have the video as a, how do you call it, you know the picture inside, on your screen.

E: Yes

Z: It’s a cycle, and you see my hand writing the [stet] Page 12, and the Page 12 is the end of the video and you’re gonna see it doesn’t exist anymore because I burn it, inside the video. So all this is Page 12 with the tab, and it’s a regular tab, I bought it, it was completely new, nobody used it before, and nobody will have ever use[d] it as a tab. It’s a work of art now.

E: Mmm. Mmm.

Z: You see. I fold the sheet of paper and I burn it. And then the video goes again and goes again and goes again like that.

E: Mmm.

Z: You could use it as a regular tablet.

E: Maybe we should use it for this interview because I don’t know if this one is working [laughter]. What happened to the other one I was recording?

Z: You see?

E: Yes, that’s neat.

Z: You like it?

E: Mmm. Mmm.

Z: So this one is Page 12. And the pen I used, it’s this one. I glue[d] it also.

E: Wow. That’s really pretty.

Z: It’s one of the two videos I made. And the other one it’s . . . I’m painting on a naked lady. [Digs around on shelf.]

E: Oh! Be careful!

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Z: And it’s this one. It’s the same principle. I bought a brand new Galaxy tab.

E: Yes.

Z: You see there is no sound, nothing. And it goes around and around like this.

E: I like that pink background. It’s pretty.

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Z: Yeah, it was my table in my, my flat that I did it. It’s all handmade, you know, home-made. This one, I did it again also, because the first one I wasn’t happy.

E: Yeah.

Z: So it cost me two tablets. You see the first tablet here [shows one he didn’t like].

E: Oh yeah. Wow.

Z: And you see. It goes again.

E: Yes.

Z: And you will see me. That’s it. You see?

E: Mmh huh. I like it.

Z: Yeah?

E: Yeah, it’s a great idea.

Z: Thank you. And the second one . . . . So it had to be different because, as I told you, two pages can’t be the same.

E: Yes.

Z: So this one, same principle. It’s a video and I took the video with the tablet of course. I didn’t took [stet] a video with a camera and put the video inside the tablet. I use the tablet as a video recorder.

E: I just want to make sure this is still working.

Z: So you see? So this one, it’s page 39. And this, I used it on the body of the lady. It’s just a regular tablet. [Sound of computer starting up] It’s brand new. Nobody use[d] it before, nobody will use it after.

E: Oh wow.

Z: And you see the video begins.

E: Yes.

Z: It’s here [in the studio] as you can recognize.

E: Yeah.

Z: The tablet’s the same. It’s a regular tablet. [Long silence as they watch video.] And she’s naked. So she’s a model. So I had a contract with her and everything. It was a few months, even more than a year ago, so there was not as many paintings as now [in the studio] so you can see the first paintings. You see page 10, page 1.

E: Yeah.

Z: I had maybe only 38 of them. Now I have 95 of them, so . . . . [silence again as they watch video].

E: Yeah.

Z: I was doing everything. I was filming her . . . [watching video] and then I put the video . . . I put the tablet on a chair, and now . . . I appear . . . and I write on her body with this.

E: Mmm. Mmm.

Z: It’s a body painting. You know body painting?

E: Mmm. Mmm. [Laughter.]

Z: So you know?

E: Is it a really long video?

Z: Yeah, it’s something like maybe like 13 minutes, and at the end I go back and she’s alone with all her body painted with letters and words and she looks at the other pages and she goes away from the studio and then the video re-begin[s] again. And that’s it. It’s circling back to the beginning. Can you see?

E: Mmm. Mmm.

Z: That was another video. And I have also . . . so this is the first . . . so you see for instance . . . so that’s the title, my name, and this is a quote by Rilke. You know Rilke, the poet, the German book poet?

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E: Oh I love Rilke. [Reads.] “The Book of Hours.” Oh wow.

Z: The first sentence of my novel is: “Call me Ace.” So, it should remember [stet] you something, “Call me Ace”?

E: O.K.? [Remembers nothing.]

Z: It’s the first sentence of Moby Dick, “Call me Ishmael.”

E: Oh yeah. O.K. Yeah.

Z: So it’s kind of fun for English reader. So I say, “Call me Ace.” So you see that’s the beginning of my novel. Page two I showed you I think. [Searches amongst paintings.] Oh! This one I like it! So this one is Page 7. So the six first pages I talk about what it means for me to be a writer, what kind of writer I am, what are [stet] my relationship with words, with literature, etc.

E: Yep.

Z: And then begin[s] the novel, Page 7. And I explain that I had a phone call from a girl I was working with and she said the work is over so I won’t have money anymore, and I had to find a way to get money. So I explain about my life, but in a very metaphorical way and I explain what I did these last years from, it was in 2011. And this one, it’s made with a pastas [stet]. You know pastas?

E: Mmm. Mmm. Pasta?

Z: Alphabet noodles.

E: Oh, pastels? Not pasta? Not like Italian spaghetti?

Z: Yeh, yeh, yeh.

E: It’s made with spaghetti? [Laughs.]

Z: Not spaghetti, but this one. You know the Panzani pastas? You have it in the States? Alphabet pastas? And you heat them for children. You see!

E: [Still laughing.] Oh Dios. It must have taken a long time. How did you . . . did you use tweezers or something.

Z: Each and every one. That’s what we have here in France. [Brings out bag.] It’s called Alphabet Panzani.

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E: Oh wow.

Z: It’s for children usually. And you have the whole alphabet.

E: Oh wow. That’s great. I like it. [Still laughing.]

Z: You don’t have it in the States?

E: I don’t know. I mean it’s Italian. Here, let me take a picture.

Z: In France, it’s very common here. It’s famous. So I did a whole page with these pastas. It’s the first page, not of of my novel, but the story. It’s the first page of my story.

E: So, um, do you think the pasta will last very long?

Z: I don’t know. I didn’t think about it [sounding annoyed]. I put some varnish on it so it should stay. It’s nice. What do you think? It’s like it’s typed on an old typewriter.

E: [Stops laughing.] Yeah, yeah, it looks great.

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Z: And so this one is what I call a “mini-serie [stet].” With four black sheet[s], and each one has a different color of ink, but not all the ink has come down with each, so it’s blue, white, green and yellow. You see?

E: Mmm. Mmm.

Z: Oh Page 2, you see? Page 1. Page 2 with red ink, that’s it.

E: Mmm. Mmm. So Page 2 is all white . . . with red?

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Z: Yeah. So, what else can I show you?

E: And you date every page?

Z: Yeah, yeah. From the day I paint it, not the day I wrote it. Page 4, it’s with a violet ink.

E: O.K.

Z: And this one is with silver ink. [Unwrapping.]

E: Oh wow.

Z: And the paper it’s from India. It’s a traditional paper. A nice paper. Pink paper.

E: Yeah, that’s pretty.

Z: You like it? It’s better to see them with a good light. It’s better to see the color. [Unwrapping.] So that’s the first one. All of them in a good light, they are very different.

E: So you write your manuscript and you say you edit your manuscript. And you edit it before you put it on the page?

Z: Well I use it, the painting is like a second editing. I write it on the manuscript first in my notebook, and then I re-write it here and then I change it here, and then re-edit what I did. I use it like a manuscript. That’s why you can see all the crossing out and things like that.

E: So this is autobiographical?

Z: Yeah.

E: And so are you going chronologically, in time?

Z: Yeah. Exactly. I begin in 2011 and I will go until now, until what happens now, I mean this year and why I decided to do “this” project. I will talk about the project at the end of my novel. So the last page will be talking about itself.

E: Yes. O.K.

Z: You understand?

E: Yes. Mm, hmm.

Z: So it’s a novel talking about a novel. It’s kind of a meta-novel, I don’t know how you say it in English.

E: Yes.

Z: So are you hungry?

E: No, are you hungry?

Z: No, no I’m o.k. You like it? You enjoy it? [Distracted and digging around in paintings.]

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E: Yes. I think it’s really fun. It’s fantastic.

Z: So, let me put this back, because behind these are other nice paintings. And this one is painted in invisible ink, and when I put the light, the text appear [stet].

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E: [Laughs.]

Z: You didn’t see, on Facebook?

E: I don’t know. Well, um, I guess you have a lot of pages, you know.

Z: Well it’s better to see them for real. It’s really very different.

E: It’s better to have the artist here explaining . . . . I’m really lucky to have this, you know?

Z: It’s too bad that I don’t have room anymore [in the studio to move paintings around because they are all stacked together.]

E: I mean, how often do you go to an art show, and the artist is there and he explains every painting, you know?

Z: Well, it’s because you are nice, and you are interested in it and so . . . . I will just try not to break nothing because everything is very fragile. And this one for instance, it’s made with, how do you call it, how do you call these things?

E: Chalk?

Z: Yeah. So if you put your hand on it, you erase it.

E: Oh yeah.

Z: I need to protect it. I can put it under glass later.

E: It’s good that you’re almost finished because the room is almost filled up.

Z: Yeah yeah. So let me just put this back. [Moves things around.] So now I will show you one with a lot of editing on it. A lot of, lot of editing on it. Some of them there is no editing because they don’t really need, and on one of them there is a lot of editing. It was in fact, the first one I wrote in French. I began it in English, and then I switched to French in the middle of . . . . So where are the novels here? The books? Oh shit, these ones they aren’t here. Oh, o.k., there they are.

E: Oop. It’s falling down again. Well, you will remember that it’s there. [Lots of moving stuff around.] That’s a nice psychedelic pen. You know psychedelic?

Z: Yeah, yeah, where?

E: On the last one.

Z: Oh yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. [Distracted and moving things around, muttering.]

E: [Laughter.] I shouldn’t laugh at you. There were these two men this morning bringing this big water thing you know up the tiny stairs of the apartment and I started laughing at them.

Z: Why?

E: Because they had such a difficult problem, you know?

Z: So what did they say? They were angry?

E: No, and I said, “Desolé.” But then I came back later, and they gave up. They just left it in the stairs.

Z: So this one goes here [still moving paintings from room to room].

E: Are you o.k.?

Z: Are you tired?

E: If it’s too . . . ?

Z: No, no, no. And then we will go to have dinner.

E: It’s called discombobulating.

Z: Dis what?

E: Discombobulating. When everything gets all topsy-turvy.

Z: I don’t know that word. So this one is very small. It’s Page 8.

E: It’s really pretty. With the small pencils.

Z: And it’s Page 77.

E: Mmm. Mmm.

Z: [Sounds of paintings being moved around.]

E: So I have to keep checking this to make sure this is going. You know the phone shuts down, and then is it still recording?

Z: Yeah, yeah, it should?

E: I think this interview is going to be like your novel, little pieces . . . .

Z: So you see this one, for example, is it in English or French? Oh it’s in French. Page uh 76. So in this one for instance, I speak about my grandmother and I say somewhere she was so light when she was dying she was very old, I could lift her with the nib of this pen, I could write with this thing that was so light. So in the text I write about the tool I used to write the text. Understand?

E: Mmm, mmm.

Z: So it’s the text speaking about himself. And I do this on some pages for instance, on this, on the mannequin, how do you call it?

E: Yes, a mannequin.

Z: On the mannequin somewhere I speak, “You are reading this on a mannequin” and so I speak to the reader, “You are reading this, not on a regular book, but on a . . . .” I don’t do it for all the page.

E: So it’s kind of like a self-reflection. You’re playing with that idea, portrait of the artist?

Z: Exactly. And it’s going to be more and more and the last pages will speak to the reader and to the viewer. [Digs around.] So this one it’s . . . so there is some editing, not a lot. And when I edit, I just use any pencil that I find. The orange one, I like it because it’s very . . . fine, you know it’s not . . . . Oh shit! [One painting keeps sliding behind the others.] It’s not thick, how do you say. [Moves things around.] What time is it? O.K. so this one I like it, it’s white on white. It’s Page 75. You see?

E: It’s really pretty.

Z: You like it?

E: Mmm, mmm. Well I don’t want to take pictures of all of them because people need to come to the show, right?

Z: Yeah, well, there are so many that you can take pictures of whatever you want. All of the pictures are on the site. O.K. so this one is the one where I switch from English to French. And you see the words are inside the letters, “RARE.” So it’s Page 72. And I did a lot of editing on it.

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E: Oh really?

Z: Yeah, you can see the editing is in orange? You see?

E: Yeah.

Z: And all this here, it’s in English. English, English, English. Over here it’s switch to French.

E: Yeah. And so was that a conscious decision?

Z: Yeah. Because I was tired of writing in English. And I made it English in the first pages for several reasons. One of the reason was that I wanted to say things a little bit private and intimate and I didn’t want French people to understand it, so to express it in English was kind of, was a way of having a kind of mask, of how do you call this, a “paravent.”

E: Paravent?

Z: Un paravent. Something behind which you can undress. Or a mask.

E: Yes, a screen.

Z: So that was one of the reasons I wanted to write English. The other reason was to try to find a new kind of public, people who didn’t know nothing about me, about my books.

E: Yes.

Z: Uh, and I wanted to . . . . It was experimental, you know. What or how do the American or English people think about my way of writing these things. So it was, you know, a way to renew my relationship with people who read me.

E: So has it been a good response?

Z: Yeah. Just like you, you know. Sometimes, I have a bad reputation in France. Not always. Some people like me, but some people don’t like me at all. And then English speaking people, they don’t know me at all so for me, it’s better. They don’t know nothing. About me. They don’t know my former books. They don’t know who I am. They don’t know what I did.

E: I know, it’s like me. . . .

Z: It’s like being a stranger in a new country. You can begin again. But I begin again my life by telling about my life in English.

So this one is the Alphabet Woman, who is another model with capitals and I painted on her body with this.

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E: Oh wow.

Z: And with this. All the letters of the alphabet. And I didn’t want it to look like a magazine. I just didn’t care. I printed it by myself. I cut the card, the picture. So this one is in English. [Reads.] “Finally . . . I was . . . back.” You see? You can read?

E: Oh, so it does say something. [Reads.] “I . . .was . . . back . . . to . . . my . . . che, che? [Laughs.]

Z: Cherished.

E: Oh, it wraps around. [Laughs.]

Z: You know, like a line in a book. And I put here, “RARE,” and the signature is on the last page. You see my signature here?

E: Yes.

Z: So you understand, I didn’t paint on the picture, I painted on her body and then I took the pictures.

E: Wow. That’s great.

Z: You like it? O.K., there are other ones behind there. So this one I didn’t edit yet. I think it’s going to be a lot of editing, but it’s in English. I need help. Because I have to re-read it. I didn’t re-read it yet. But there is a lot of text and one big canvas. You want to see?

E: But if you edit the novel, does that mean you have to edit the painting?

Z: Yes, of course. It’s the same. It’s one text. So if I change one word here, I have to change it. So that’s why it has to be finished in June or July because I want to . . . .

E: But June is a couple of days from now.

Z: The end of June or July. But I am stressed. I am at the end of the novel now.

E: Let me make sure this thing is still working.

Z: I didn’t show you the newspaper. It’s somewhere behind this.

E: Be careful.

Z: Well maybe this one. Oh yeah. Did you see this one? So it’s the newspaper, Le Monde, and I wrote on it and I edited it in green and that’s it.

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E: Oh wow. That’s pretty. That’s beautiful.

Z: You like it?

E: Mmm. Mmm. Well some of these are . . . beautiful. Well it’s supposed to be artwork, right?

Z: Yes. But there are so many different ones. Some people like some of them and others like others. It is for all tastes. You know how you say it in English, tous les goûts.

E: Yes, all tastes.

Z: Let me finish and then I will show you what I call the Disco.

E: So you know where, in your head, where your paintings are, right [in the room]?

Z: More or less. More or less. The ones that are behind here I don’t remember. I can’t touch it [because it’s so difficult to move the stack of paintings].

E: But most of them are finished, in your mind, right?

Z: Yes.

E: I mean you don’t worry about Page 10 anymore?

Z: No, no. You mean the text, or the making of the painting?

E: Well I guess both of them. Sometimes you said you went back and did something.

Z: Yes, but no most of them will stay like that. Shit, I don’t know what I put there. Where are they? [Lots of muttering, moving around.] And so this one, I don’t know how you say in English.

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E: Ink pad. I like that one too. I think that both writers and artists are just really gonna love this.

Z: Yeah maybe. I don’t know. We’ll see. This one is very simple. Pink stick and a paintbrush and that’s it.

E: Oh wow.

Z: And this one, I made it very difficult to read because I say a lot of intimate things, and so in a way I don’t want people to read what I write. Remember what I told you. I don’t write for readers, I write for myself [blows dust off painting].

E: You write for yourself?

Z: Oh I don’t know. Just like a painter paints. When you are a painter, you don’t say I paint this for people who are . . . .

E: So you’re kind of afraid, just because of past things.

Z: No, I’m not afraid, but I want to protect people from people who are unkind.

E: Because poets, we try to learn to get up on stage and you tell the most intimate things . . . .

Z: Yeah me too . . . .

E: And that’s what people really love because it’s the common human experience.

Z: So if you want to read it, you read it like this . . . . but it will be in the printed book. But in English. And also people want to be able to understand it.

E: So you’re just in trouble with the French press?

Z: More or less. Let’s just say it that way. I have a lot of people in France who don’t like me and they did already everything they could to harm people around me.

E: This is just typical. I’ve had the same thing.

Z: Really?

E: People have written mean poems about me. I mean, yeah, that’s what happens to artists and poets.

Z: When it’s about me I don’t care, but when it’s about my family . . . . Oh, I knew there was a big one [still searching amongst the paintings]. This one took me a long time. Oh shit.

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E: Oh wow. It’s really nice. So you were a novelist before. Did you just learn all of this stuff about frames and . . . ?

Z: Yeah, by myself. I did everything by myself. I didn’t learn nothing, I just did it.

E: You taught yourself all this stuff in the last 2 years?

Z: Yeah, but it’s not difficult.

E: But still, it’s quite an accomplishment to do all that.

Z: For me, I like to do it. I discovered it at the same time I was doing it. It wasn’t really complicated to be honest. It was more fun than complicated. What is complicated, I don’t know how you say in English, gravure? The aquatint?

E: The what?

Z: You see? When you draw on metal?

E: Oh, oh, engraving. I didn’t understand your accent.

Z: Engraving. So I’m going to do one page engraved, but I won’t print it. The metal will be the page. You understand? I won’t put it on paper. I bought the metal. Oh here it is.

E: Oh wow. So do you already have an idea of the last few pages, what they’re gonna be?

Z: Yeah. So just to explain to you I bought it [shows book] to learn how to do it. But I will learn it and I will try to do it on this page. I hope it will work.

E: Wow.

Z: Well I’m having fun, but now I have to hurry. I’m at the end of the project. And the exhibition is in September so I can’t be late. You understand?

E: So you do have a gallery to show it at?

Z: Yeah.

E: It’s a big gallery?

Z: Yeah. It’s named Galerie Éric du Pont (http://www.eric-dupont.com) and he has a site and it’s going to be a very nice and big exhibition, in September.

E: That’s great.

Z: But I have to finish all my work. I think you are the last one I have to show it because it’s not easy to show it anymore because now it’s very complicated and I’m afraid to break something. Did I put back everything? Are you o.k.? Are you tired? Are you hungry?

E: No, maybe a little bit.

Z: What time is it? 9 o’clock? You want to go to a vegetarian restaurant?

E: Sure, sounds good.

Z: O.K. so these are virgin pages. What else? And this is the big picture? Wanna see it? [Starts pulling wrapping off big picture.]


E: Yeah, I thought that was really fantastic. You really went up and painted the side of a building?

Z: Yeah. And it’s still in Paris. You can see it.

E: Oh really? Oh wow.

Z: Yes, from the street. But you don’t see all of it. You can see the size of the human beings there. You see? Be careful.

E: Oh wow. And you have those spray paints there too.

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Z: So I did the wall with all these paintings. And this and this.

E: That’s great.

Z: And this [painting/photo] is 6 meters. It’s a lot. I don’t how it is in feet, but it’s a lot.

E: Yeah.

Z: I used the ladder.

E: Fantastic. That’s a great photo of it too.

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Z: Two letters by two letters. And this one I call the “totem,” the pink one, you see? On the planche, how do you say in English? Board?

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E: Oui. Board.

Z: And I painted it pink and then I wrote in gold.

E: Yeah that’s really pretty.

Z: And I had written, “my neighbor and me contrived to bring the piece of furniture.” So it’s my neighbor and I, right? contrived to bring the piece of furniture.

E: An easy way to check is to take out “my neighbor” and say, “I contrived to bring the piece of furniture.”

Z: Yeah, I got it. That’s an example of the stupid mistakes I make. [Wrapping noises.]

E: Yeah, but the green correction looks pretty on there.

Z: For me it’s a manuscript so I don’t mind editing. It’s just that at the end of the month when I will be doing the print, I don’t even know.

E: Are you o.k.? [Laughing and more wrapping noises.] This is a nice studio in here. You have the nice light coming in.

Z: Yes, yes, it was lighter before I put the big picture [in front of the window]. [More wrapping noises.]

E: O.K. be careful. Is it finished? C’est fini? So do I just stop this?

Z: Yeah, you stop [presses button].

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